Big Tech greater threat to privacy than Big Brother

Published: 2020-01-23

Slightly more than half of the Swedes consider the data-collection made by platform companies a greater threat to privacy compared to the data collection made by the public sector. This is the result of a recent Swedish national survey looking closer into the relationship between camera surveillance, technology and privacy.

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“The fictional future in George Orwell’s book 1984, portrays a dystopian society where each and everyone is closely monitored by surveillance technologies directed by a totalitarian state. But, in the day and age we currently live in, the privacy-concerns of the public is mostly directed at the data-collection made by large and global platform companies,” says security and technology researcher Markus Lahtinen of the Lusax security research team at Lund University School of Economics and Management (LUSEM).

The overarching question of what underlying motives and drivers underpins the systematic data collection of our everyday behaviour has been subject to intense debate the past years. The Cambridge Analytica-scandal, involving Facebook, made the general public aware of the commoditization and reselling of our consumer data that happens behind the digital scenes.

Elsewhere, the privacy debate has focused on data collection made by the public sector, for example the state and other public agencies. Less frequently, data collection made by members of the public of other members of the public, for example invasive filming, snapping photos or audio-recordings has been discussed. The Lusax research team at LUSEM wanted to know how the general public weighed these different privacy cases against one another – something that has never been done on a large scale before in Sweden.

“The relentless technological change we’ve experienced the past decades has increasingly paved the way for privacy concerns on how the collected data is used. Because of this, it is important to know the view held by the general public on the risks associated with each of these cases,” says Markus Lahtinen.

One in ten are worried by the state's data collection

In December 2019, the research team commissioned opinion poll institute Kantar-SIFO to conduct a national survey of the general public in Sweden. The survey, targeting a representative sample of a thousand individuals, focused on the views held by the public on public camera surveillance, data collection and privacy.

The survey showed that 55% of the public were most concerned about the data collection made by companies on their everyday consumer behaviour. A fifth (20%), were mostly concerned about privacy risks associated with having other members of the public engaging in invasive documentation. Approximately one in ten (11%) were most concerned about the data collection made by the state and the public sector. Approximately 15% stated that they didn’t know.

“It is very clear that the public holds a negative view on how their personal data is used for commercial purposes. There are risks that need to be addressed and managed here, the European Data Protection Regulation, GDPR, is a good example of this. At the same time, we mustn’t forget that the commercially driven data collection also enables for a high degree of personalization. In other words: It’s a good idea to think of commercial data collection as a method to receive relevant ads in your mailbox – as misdirected ads in one’s mailbox is often a nuisance,” says Markus Lahtinen.

From 1984 to Big Tech

The survey also shows that the Big Brother scenario of 1984, worries the public the least. The result resonates well with the view held by the American general public being asked a similar question. In September 2019, highly respected opinion poll institute Pew, published a study stating that the American public is more concerned about data collection made by Big Tech-companies compared to the data collection made by the public sector, for example law-enforcement.

Markus Lahtinen gives some examples on global contemporary commentators associated with the different cases explored in the survey. Sociologist Soshana Zuboff, is probably the most prominent global commentator problematizing privacy-issues concerning commercial corporate-driven data collection, most notably in her recent book Surveillance Capitalism from 2018.

“For analytical reasons, it’s important to cultivate these perspectives – 1984, Big Tech and the relationship to our fellow members of the public – separately. Are we discussing corporations need to collect data? The state? I have been doing research on security and surveillance technologies for the past 14 years and I often see these perspectives mixed up. Somewhat unfortunate – it seems like there’s been a need to discuss privacy in more general and abstract terms,” Markus Lahtinen concludes.

Download datasheet – available at lusax.ehl.lu.se

Recent publication from the same survey: The general public holds public camera surveillance in a favourable view – including camera surveillance at health-care units as well as in residential areas

Contact

Markus Lahtinen
Lecturer, Department of Informatics, Lund School of Economics and Management, Sweden

Phone: +46-(0)46-222 91 59
E-mail: markus.lahtinen@ics.lu.se

Markus Lahtinen’s research output